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Forestry & Land Scotland grows new digital infrastructure and cuts out legacy dead wood



(Image by Joe from Pixabay)

In a forest, it’s the towering trees that draw your attention. However, a forest is a complex ecosystem, and it’s within the roots and undergrowth where much of the detail and wonder takes place. Big societal changes are similar, take Scottish devolution, there’s been a lot of focus on the powers that the Scottish parliament has gained, but devolution triggered a series of changes across institutions, each of which has led to technological change. 

An example of this is Forestry and Land Scotland. Originally part of the Forestry Commission, Forestry and Land Scotland was founded in 2019, Nick Mahlitz, Senior Digital Infrastructure Manager at Forestry & Land Scotland, left the shores of the famous Loch Ness to describe the new technology direction and the role of cloud computing in replacing legacy systems. 

Forestry & Land Scotland manages over 1.5 million acres of national forests and land, which is about 9% of the Scottish land mass. Those woods and glens are the revenue generators for Forestry & Land Scotland through sales of timber, venison, or access for holidays, hiking and mountain biking. It is an agency of the Scottish government, which employs 1,300, mostly in operational roles such as lumberjacks and archaeologists, Mahlitz says. Separation of the technology from the Forestry Commission took place in 2019. Today, Forestry & Land Scotland has IT teams at two main office locations in Edinburgh and Inverness; but Mahlitz does get out into the woods: 

At forestry, for non-foresters days, I’ll drive a timber harvester, spend the day on the peat restoration or work in the venison chillers, and that is where I and IT get to really engage and understand the challenges of the organization.

Talking of the separation, he says:

As a newly devolved organization, we had very little to go on when it came to predicting what IT we might need. On the plus side, we did inherit some legacy platforms, but they needed urgent updating.

Forestry & Land Scotland inherited an on-premise data center, which Mahlitz says of:

We had a diverse and old technology stack, which had received little investment. Some of the systems were 20 years old, including an ERP that was written in-house. The lack of investment was because the previous organization was waiting for devolution. So the technology had not kept up.

Initially, Forestry & Land Scotland opted for a private cloud hosting agreement for three years to give the organization time to consider its strategy, especially as a new remit brought a new appetite for what technology could do. This enabled an upgrade to the data center to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) using the Nutanix Cloud Platform, running 300 virtual machines delivering databases and back office applications. 

Cloud cover

As Forestry & Land Scotland met with diginomica, the private data center agreement was coming to an end, and Mahlitz was preparing to move to a complete cloud infrastructure for the organization, so they opted to stay with Nutanix. Forestry & Land Scotland is using the Nutanix Cloud Cluster (NC2) platform to manage their Microsoft Azure estate, Mahiltz says:

We initially saw NC2 as a kind of stopgap that would allow us to pick up our on-premise data center and run it on Microsoft Azure while we went about re-engineering applications to run on that platform natively.

Opting for Microsoft Azure aligns Forestry & Land Scotland with the Scottish government, which is a major user of Azure. Mahiltz says his organization will therefore be able to use Azure-based services as part of the Scottish government. He says:

By the end of this year, we will be 100% on Azure. The data center has come to the end of its life, so we needed to re-tender and re-architect.

Which is what shaped Mahlitz’ thinking. The NC2 platform has bought Forestry & Land Scotland time, as it doesn’t need to re-architect applications in a hurry. Without refactoring, Mahiltz has also avoided having to find those skills for a medium-term benefit. Although business technology leaders would rather not lift and shift, and it is well understood that this doesn’t deliver optimum cloud savings, sometimes business needs to trump best practice. Mahiltz says: 

We were given the opportunity to see for ourselves how easy it would be to move our applications to the public cloud using Nutanix NC2, how they would actually perform and understand the benefit of being able to manage them using the same tools as on our existing on-premise data center. It also gave us a real insight into just what we could save by not having to re-code and acquire new specialist skills to run applications natively on the Azure platform.

We deployed everything with little assistance. So we will take a lot of the legacy to the cloud and then transform it, including the ERP.

Having avoided reskilling in order to give old applications and business processes extended life, Forestry & Land Scotland can look forward to the skills it will require to meet the agency’s new remit. Infrastructure management will be brought under a single console for cloud-based virtual machines, as well as on-premises technology. 

Although a lift and shift may not sound it to some, Mahlitz says this move is in keeping with the needs of Forestry & Land Scotland and its five-year transformation programme. Forestry & Land Scotland also counts Citrix, Okta, Zscaler and Oracle as its key technologies. Mahiltz adds that the ability for NC2 to manage existing product licences on the new platform and use its data replication tools for automation will be beneficial to the government agency. 

My take 

Forestry & Land Scotland is an organization that finds itself central to one of the most important issues of our time – sustainability. In the years to come, the organization will be storing carbon, continue producing carbon-neutral resources from its forests and be part of Scotland’s vital tourism and sports sector, which will be on display to the world in August 2023 as Scotland hosts the first ever UCI combined cycling world championships.  

More importantly, Mahlitz and his team have demonstrated that infrastructure decisions are business decisions. As Forestry & Land Scotland prepares to explore the use drones, virtual reality and continue to digitise its operations, infrastructure needs to be simplified and the platform for change, not the change itself.  

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